Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Realistic immigration reform

I am glad that the recently proposed Kennedy-McCain immigration bill is being debated as a solution to immigration reform. I have advocated for years ideas similar to some in the bill, but to see it put out in front of the United States Senate shows that we may finally be getting past the immigrant bashing rhetoric and focusing on real solutions.

In 1923, Congress slammed the Golden Door shut. Strict immigration quotas were put into place.

The problem is, that ever since that time, immigration quotas have reflected a wish. A wish on the part of those who believe that America is too small for anyone new to come in, and a wish that they would simply stay out. Of course, this is a pipe dream, and they have not stayed out. As long as there are people who hire illegal immigrants, there will be jobs available. And as long as there are jobs, they will come. Just as Adam Smith would have predicted, the number of immigrants has surged as there have been jobs available. And the difference between the number of legal immigrants allowed and the number of total immigrants who have come as a result of MARKET conditions has added up and accumulated every single year since 1923, until now, at the best estimate (and it is only a guess) there are ten million or more undocumented aliens populating the cities, towns, highways and farms of America.

The only difference has been that instead of legal immigrants who were given both the incentive and the opportunity to shed their 'immigrant status' in favor of 'Americanness' as soon as possible (my own maternal grandparents were among these), and who thus became part of the great American 'melting pot,' the new immigrants, having to hide from the INS and other agencies have found that the easiest way to do this, ironically, is to blend into ever increasing ethnically monotone communities that retain their national identities, and even their nationalism. Sixty, forty or even twenty years ago, the idea that Cinco de Mayo would be a bigger celebration in an American city than the Fourth of July would have been met with incredulity. Yet this has become fairly routine in many cities and towns here in the southwest and elsewhere.

The response by many on the right has been a 'get tough' attitude. Never mind that it is abundantly clear that these immigrants are willing to risk their lives (and scores die every year) in an attempt to make it into America. Somehow they believe that by denying medical care, schooling or other benefits, they can make it so difficult for these people that they won't want to come here. In fact, this approach is doomed to failure since any job in America at all is enough to provide a better standard of living than they would have had in a poverty stricken village in Mexico, central America, China or elsewhere. All this approach achieves is to deter people from getting shots (so that if there is an epidemic we have a pool of people who can serve as a reservoir) or sending their kids to school (so that when these kids grow up they will have no American identity at all, and will live, have their own kids and perhaps (if they were born here and are American citizens) even vote without having a clue what it means to be American.

What to do? Well, the Kennedy-McCain bill is a good start. It recognizes reality, and allows those people who are already here or who are ready to begin a job to simply pay a fine. Even this action will give us a better tab on them than we have now, and will allow them to finally begin the process of Americanization.

Another thing that we need to do is to start prosecuting and jailing those who hire illegal aliens in violation of the law. While the immigrants themselves have little to lose, so jail is not much of a deterent, it is a deterent for a potential employer. The $11 million settlement recently reached with WalMart for hiring illegal workers to clean its stores at night-- some for as little as $2 per night--sends precisely the wrong message. The settlement, which it takes WalMart 19 minutes to ring up at its registers on a typical day, sends the message that you can simply calculate the cost of government fines into the costs of doing business, and if you still come out ahead by hiring illegals, then so be it. Jail time for those responsible would send the right message.

Finally, we need to work to increase wages and living standards in the countries where these immigrants come from to the level that travelling thousands of miles and risking one's life to enter the United States is no longer an appealing alternative. A start would be a commitment not to sign any free trade agreement with a nation unless they have either put in place American Standards on wages, workplace safety and environmental laws, or if they are not there yet, must be committed to making significant progress in these areas.

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